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Humans: Bonobos or Prairie Voles?

My new Facebook friend, Tinamarie Bernard Eshel, writes about sex, spirituality, and earth stewardship.

On the blog Green Prophet, she recently wrote Monkey Love: When females rule fornication, Mother Earth delights. It's a terrific and thought-provoking post, and you should read it.

Her thesis:

The bonobos have found the solution to world peace. It’s called love. Whenever there is a dispute, they resolve it with a good bout of nooky. A bit of masturbation here, a little tickle where it feels really good there, and soon enough the tension is relieved. Have a problem? Not after you’ve had sex, bonobo style.

And if you have any doubt about female satisfaction, rest assured that these apes know how to swing. Wink wink, nod nod, grunt grunt, sigh. In fact, in their natural habitats, Bonobos have rarely demonstrated hostile or violent behaviors towards another.

I began to comment on her blog, and decided instead to post it here.

I completely agree with Tinamarie that you can't have too much sex. Sex is the emotional glue that holds couples together, and it satisfies our physical and emotional cravings for connection while tuning up our bodies for maximum health.

That said, even though we share 97 percent of our dna with the bonobo, this does not mean that we are like them socially. Biologists estimate that approximately 3 percent of mammals are monogamous, and they seem to share a quirk of brain structure that places receptors for both dopamine, the neurochemical of reward-seeking and reward, close to receptors for oxytocin, the neurochemical of attachment, trust, generosity and love, in the parts of the brain that handle social interactions.

This difference makes the prairie vole monogamous, even though it is genetically very close to its polyamorous cousin, the mountain vole. Humans do seem to share this monogamous brain structure.

This does NOT mean that humans or any other monogamous mammal is wired to copulate ONLY with one mate. In fact, they've found that as many as 45 percent of "monogamous" male prairie voles never mate, while in monogamous bird species, some 25 percent of offspring are the result of extra-pair copulation.

We seem to be wired to live in a stable family with a long-term, and possibly life-long, mate, with the possibility of other sexual partners for both sexes. Unfortunately, in our highly civilized culture, we have robust social conventions for romance, friendship and property rights that make it quite difficult to be as free as the bonobos.

I think where the ideals of polyamory may lead us astray is when we focus on the amory part and forget about creating a stable mate relationship. I firmly believe that this mate/family structure may take many forms outside of the traditional nuclear family -- in fact, I think it should.

However, without a home and family to come home to, the polyamorist risks falling into a tangle of unsatisfying relationships that may provide lots of dopamine highs without the next of trust and connection that comes from oxytocin.

I think women can be especially at risk in a polyamorous playground, because our higher estrogen causes us to respond more strongly to oxytocin, making sex feel more bonding to us. 

All that said, sex -- no matter who or how many we enjoy it with -- does make us calmer, less anxious and more open and trusting. That's got to be good for the planet.